5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Anton Chekhov
Actually, you call call him Dr. Chekhov, or preferably not call him at all, since he died of tuberculosis back in 1904.
Yet the theater keeps asking poor Chekhov, unquestionably to my mind the finest and most eternally profound playwright of the seriocomic to ever walk the planet, to make theatrical house calls. For a man whose work was so cruelly misunderstood in his own time, how ironic is it that his brand of dramatic medicine is some of the most popular elixir in the world? One spoonful is stringent and bold, saucy and cauterizing, wistful and exuberant, ebullient and glum, mirthful and melancholy. And it’s never a pill.
Off-Broadway’s indispensable Pearl Theatre Company, entering a new season of performances at New York City Center, is kicking off its 26th year with Michael Frayn’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Sneeze, a jubilant compilation of “wild and witty vaudevillian vignettes” that encompass town and country and rich and poor — plus the odd duel, a fully mangled marriage proposal, and of course, the tantalizing titular sneeze. The company’s artistic director, J.R. Sullivan, is staging The Sneeze (the individual pieces are “Drama,” “The Alien Corn,” “The Sneeze,” “The Bear,” “The Evils of Tobacco,” “The Inspector-General,” “Swan Song” and “The Proposal”), which is now in previews and will open Sept. 26 for a run through Oct. 31.
Now, back to our fair Chekhov. He left this mortal earth too soon — at a mere 44. The last Tsar of Russia was still tsaring; Theodore Roosevelt was still sizing up his big stick; the namesake of this site, Clyde Fitch, was approaching the zenith of his popularity as an American take on Sir Arthur Wing Pinero or even Oscar Wilde. I began to imagine what Chekhov might think of the century-plus of theater that he missed, what he might tell us about this own work that we, generations removed, might not and, indeed, could not fully know.
Well, long-distance telephony is one thing, but the Pearl really outdid itself this time. Sure enough, the phone rang, and there, on the line, calling from the great beyond, was Anton Chekhov himself. It was a fascinating interview.
For tickets to The Sneeze — which stars some of the Pearl’s resident pearls, including Rachel Botchan, Bradford Cover Dominic Cuskern, Robert Hock, Chris Mixon, Edward Seamon, Lee Stark — click here or call 212-581-1212.
And now, 5 questions Anton Chekhov has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What is the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked about your work?
“Why are you a writer?” It’s an excellent question because, if the person asking it has been paying attention to my capricious career, he or she must already suspect that the answer has changed many times over the years.
As a child, I wrote for the pure fun of it. I scribbled little comic scenes and stories that my siblings and I performed in the evenings. My family was poor, our life was hard, and anything that could make us laugh was considered a valuable commodity.
As a young man, I wrote for money. My family needed funds, and the St. Petersburg humor magazines paid the princely sum of five kopeks a line. It was work I knew how to do — or at least enjoyed doing. I churned out stories in perhaps too-rapid a succession (I don’t think I ever spent more than a day on any of them), but why take more time over them when my goal was commerce, not art? No one was more surprised than I when it turned out I wasn’t half bad.
Once I felt I might have some glimmering of talent, I wrote to see if there was any hope I might create something that would last. I did better than I hoped. I generally assumed that my work would prove little more than a footnote in the history of Russian literature, and yet here we are a century later — funny, isn’t it?
Of course, in another sense, the answer to “Why are you a writer?” remains constant, no matter what the exterior circumstances. I am a writer because I couldn’t seem to stop writing. Because it was my passion, my great love, and, in a sense, my vocation. That never changed.
2) What is the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked about your work?
“What happens in your plays?” (A pause, while the playwright rolls his eyes.) I would never wish to accuse anyone of being intentionally obtuse, but surely the answer is obvious.
In my plays, people live. They enter and exit rooms, they sit down to tea, conduct business, talk nonsense about art, politics, metaphysics, and any other subject unfortunate enough to come into their inept hands, and generally make a mess of everything. I show life as it is — and I think that’s quite dramatic enough.
3) What is the weirdest question anyone has asked about your work?
“Why all the animals?” It has been brought to my attention that in several of my short plays, animals play an important role — for example, the dogs in “The Proposal,” the horses in “The Bear” (and of course, the title of that show). Even in my later work they appear from time to time (The Seagull would be lost without its title bird). I could give you a long answer about the importance of animals in daily life in 19th century Russia, but the answer is much more straightforward.
I like animals.
I owned two dachshunds named Bromine and Quinine (in honor of my medical work), and I had a pet crane. When I traveled to the penal colony at Sakhalin to interview the prisoners, I came back with two mongooses in tow. When I first bought my country house, there was a short period of time when we relied on a single horse to plow our fields and to take me around to my house calls. Her name was Anna Petrovna — and she was a wonder! I am an unabashed animal enthusiast, and it seems only natural that I should allow them onto the stage.
Well, at least onstage in spirit — I do have some common sense about production budgets.
4) Michael Frayn has made a real specialty of translating your work into English. What comic qualities are so innate to the Russian character (and language) that you wish all of us English-speaking theatergoers spoke Russian? (Or is humor really so universal?)
Well, since I myself never mastered English, it would be a bit hypocritical of me to demand that all of you learn Russian.
Remember that, in my time, Imperial Russia stretched to the Pacific — so the term “Russian character” covered a lot of ground. Does my particular brand of humor reflect a wide swath of that Russia? I wonder…especially since, on occasion, I had to fight my own actors and director to convince them that there really was a comic element to my work. Are my characters distinctly Russian? Of course; a writer must write the world as he knows it, and Russia was my world. And the particular problems they encounter are born of their time and country — property disputes, jockeying for political favor, arguments over hunting dogs and mortgaged estates. But money woes, creeping old age, the desire and fear of change, empty ambition, and lethargy are common to all cultures — and are easily teased no matter the language.
The comic production currently under discussion is Mr. Frayn’s The Sneeze: it is a sampling of my work from the five-kopeks-a-line days. He’s done a remarkable job of choosing scenes that reflect the many facets of my early humor. I leave it to the audience to decide if they remain universal.
5) How is your “Chekhovian” humor perceived differently in the 21st century than from the 19th or 20th? What do most contemporary directors and actors appreciate — and also not appreciate — about your comedic and theatrical sensibilities?
The advantage of being recognized as a father of modern drama (thanks for that, by the way) is that a modern audience “knows” your humor whether they know they know it or not…you see?
I think 21st century directors and actors are far more willing to take me at my word when I say my work is comedic — and that’s more than my own peers conceded. Stanislavsky, to whom I owe much for championing my work, was among the unwilling, and despite his many discerning ideas about my plays, he didn’t always bring that element to the stage. Brilliant director (about his acting we will not speak), but we did not always agree…
I suppose I was something of a theatrical heretic. I ignored the common practices and conventions of the stage, and tossed out a great deal of activity that I saw as mere “running around — distracting and unnecessary. Happily for me, your 21st century audience already is attuned to a school of playwriting in which “nothing happens” — where character and mood matter more than melodramatic noise. In a sense, my humor has become commonplace. That’s very different.
One aspect of my work that I suspect is just as tricky now as then is the lack of clearly-delineated heroes or heroines. It is human nature to take sides when presenting a situation and I never did. Some people insist an artist must pass judgment on the world through his creations, but my job as a writer is — or was — scientific. I examined and catalogued — I did not editorialize.
6) During the 19th century, so far as you recall, did people do any of the following — sneeze, laugh, cough, sit, shake hands — differently? What do you like best about 21st century audiences? What could they learn from 19th century audiences?
A cursory glance around a New York subway reveals far poorer posture than in my own time (not to mention an…informal attitude toward clothing). You do not shake hands with as much ceremony as we did, but you keep up the tradition well.
As for sneezing and coughing: as a doctor I am pleased to see that advances in medicine mean that such symptoms are not as often signs of a serious problem.
As a humorist, though, I have a complaint: I think it’s a great shame that no one carries handkerchiefs any longer. What do ladies wave after departing lovers or twist in their hands when agitated? What do men pull from their coat pockets if they wish to blow their noses with pomp and circumstance? Mr. Frayn has found such an excellent use for a handkerchief in The Sneeze that I’m loath to admit it was his idea rather than mine.
But laughter — though the cause might change — is eternal. You Americans laugh easily and loudly, and sometimes inappropriately. It is an endearing national trait. I always wrote my stories secure in the knowledge that where there is the sublime, there will always be the ridiculous — a good thing for me, since I made a career out of human foolishness, both my own and other people’s. What strikes us as foolish changes with time and culture, but the universality of laughter itself is beyond doubt.
There are some startling differences between my theater audience and yours, though, and I do not refer to the technological advances you have made. Perhaps most important among them is the lack of censorship you enjoy. The threat of a work being deemed unfit for publication does not loom over your authors the way it did over us. We had so many restrictions of content and language placed upon us that I believe the public saw only a sliver of what I imagine our writers were capable of crafting.
But, and I hope I do not sound too critical, I feel your audiences could indeed learn something from my original audiences. Theater used to, on occasion, cause riots in the streets. That was good — it meant that something in that work had prompted not just emotion or thought, but a need to act, to do something. I don’t know that theater can change the world, but that’s no reason not to try. Your audiences have so much “culture” flung at them that theater is often just one more voice in a crowd. It should mean more.
I also note a disturbing trend toward forgetfulness when it comes to theater etiquette (I refer to your infernal cellular phones) which must be very frustrating. Riots are one thing, but cheerful melodies in the midst of a pregnant pause on stage are quite…unacceptable.